A robin in hawthorn [Fiep-de-Bie]

A bob-bob-bobbin’

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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I’ve had several conversations recently with people who were surprised to see American robins hanging around this winter. These birds are usually thought of as harbingers of spring, and often they are just that. I remember seeing early migrations of robins flying into the Wood Islands area in late April. Driving from there to Charlottetown, I would see hundreds of robins lined up along the highway. The snow had started to migrate away from the road, and the edges of the fields were beginning to open up. That was always a sure sign of spring.

But we also see robins throughout the winter—sometimes one or two, but occasionally in huge numbers. It generally depends on food sources. As I am typing this column, there is a beautiful robin sitting in our hawthorn bush in Tea Hill, feasting on the last of the fruit.

Robins are one of our most easily recognizable birds. A dark back and an orange-red breast—that’s all you really need to know to identify them. The males have a darker head than the females and a much more colourful breast—a deeper, richer orange.  Juveniles are a bit different, as their light orange breast is mottled with brown spots.

They are also very sociable birds, never afraid to nest in the wreath on your door, or on a disused vehicle or piece of farm equipment. Their nests are quite distinct—a roughly thrown together consolidation of grasses and twigs, with a clay liner that gives it strength. Robins are one of the birds that will lay clutches of eggs throughout the spring and summer. This is a useful survival strategy as their nests often get predated by other birds, such as blue jays and owls, and red squirrels. Blue eggshells on the ground during the late spring and summer often are evidence of predation.

These songbirds are closely related, and look somewhat similar, to our other common thrushes—Swainson’s thrush and hermit thrush.  

Robins probably appreciate the milder winters we’ve been having, but I remember several Christmas bird counts—either late December or early January—with lots of snow cover and flocks of three to five hundred birds. Those were very magical outings—with not just robins, but also Bohemian waxwings, pine grosbeaks, hairy woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees madly eating together.  

The common thread to these sightings was food. In the bird count, we cover an area around Georgetown that for some reason usually has huge amounts of winter food for these birds. Hawthorn, mountain ash, winterberry holly, wild rose, black chokeberry, highbush cranberry, apples and crabapples can be found in large numbers throughout this area, and it must be a smorgasbord for all kinds of fruit-eating birds. Heavy fruiting does not occur every year, but if there are enough of these sources of food around, you’ll generally have sufficient fruit to keep the robins happy.

If you want to “fruitify” your yard by planting any or all of the above varieties, you’ll increase the number of birds that stay in your area over the winter months. More fruit means that you’ll either get more birds coming to feed, or the birds will stay there longer.

Often we see large numbers of robins here that have migrated from more northerly climes, usually when the food sources in those areas have been picked clean.

Whether late migrants from the north or ones that stayed here due to the large amounts of available food, robins are always a welcome sight. They make it seem as though spring is right around the corner.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.